It's very tempting to present a review of the press release for
this album rather than the music involved, in which case it would receive a
well-deserved 10 out of 10 for its almost aggressive earnestness and hugely
involved history of Seo Taiji. Fortunately the music is able to stand alone. In
Korea, "Ultramania" has sold over 1.3 million copies. Influenced by Taiji's four
year residence in America, the album is a polished and venomous slab of hardcore
pimp-rock. For a genre still largely underground in Korea, that's pretty good
Although clearly influenced by bands such as Limp Bizkit and Rage
Against the Machine, he remains a one-man show, having composed, played and
recorded all the sounds on the album (bar one, more on that later). Criticized
in his homeland for merely plagiarizing the sounds of western hardcore yet
revered by a large number of the nation's youth, Seo Taiji is hoping to get a
foothold in other countries to help deliver a feel of the current mood of Korean
teenagers to the world. He has been deeply involved in music for the past 15
years, a turbulent time indeed, as he moved from band to band and image to
"Ultramania" opens with an insiduous little riff before crashing
and burning into the full on riffery of "Tank". In contrast, a vocodered yelp
appears before Taiji's truly spiteful vocal takes over. Then, sounding like
another person entirely, he growls and yells through the chorus. It's more
aggressive and expressive than previous work, yet without being pointlessly
punishing. "Orange" uses a more poly-rhythmic rap, and follows a political
message delivered in "Classroom Idea", that of being educated to oppress both
yourself and others. It's no wonder he's big with Korean youth.
"Internet War" bounces about with Taiji sounding disdainful about the
Internet. It is here that the benefits of a foreign language are reaped, since
songs about the Internet being stupid and full of porn are hardly new. It also
includes some of the most peculiar sentiments in rock, presumably having lost
something in translation ("It is really too much, your halitosis.../toxic waste
water that you discharged flows through children's veins"). "Lego" is a mellow
and much needed respite from the progressively harder edge of the album, acting
as a brief bridge into "Ultramania", probably the cheesiest thing here. Cheesy
in the mass appeal sense, it is the central song yet containing no meaning in
particular. It is more simply a call to everyone to be erase preconcieved ideas
and be passionate about life.
Taiji's favourite song on the album, "Do
You Remember" is less rap-metal, more grunge. Lyrically it is the most
interesting and dark, musically it is more anthemic. After a few minutes of
silence it includes the hidden track "To You", a remake of an old ballad he
wrote. It breezes along like any joyous pop, and then brutally screams through
the chorus. It shows a sense of humour and fondness about his previous naive
songwriting, and that he is able to straddle many styles of music effortlessly.
It's a pointless exercise to argue where and when any artist developed
their style so long as the result is worthwhile. Many famous and uncriticized
singers only sang other people's songs. For Seo Taiji to inject new spirit and
meaning into a fairly tired genre refutes any claims that he is derivative. To
Korea, I say treasure him. To America, I say try him. But beware that his tone
of voice sometimes says more than his words.
Written by Paul Morton.
Originally posted on 06/22/2001.